May 19, 2013

Maine Turnpike toll hike pays off

Six months in, revenue has increased by 16 percent even though traffic has dropped by 4 percent.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

20130516_Turnpike
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The Maine Turnpike was busy with traffic Thursday near Exit 44 in South Portland. An analysis of turnpike traffic by toll interchange suggests that motorists have taken steps to avoid some of the plazas that have had increases in their fares during the last six months.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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SOME TRAFFIC DIVERSION

Although the overall traffic decreased by only 4 percent, an analysis of traffic by toll interchange suggests that motorists took steps to avoid some of the toll plazas that had increases.

Comparing January to April 2012 to the same period this year, the number of vehicles that passed through the York toll plaza decreased by 5.3 percent. During the same period, the number of vehicles at the New Gloucester toll dropped 10.6 percent and the number at the West Gardiner toll dropped 5.9 percent.

Those three tolls saw the biggest drops in traffic and all three had toll increases.

Jake Mulligan of Saco said the latest toll increase was enough for him to start avoiding the turnpike altogether. When he goes to Portland now, he takes Route 1. It adds a few minutes to his drive, he said, but he doesn't mind. He said he doesn't understand the toll increases, given the fact that he doesn't think the turnpike is well maintained.

However, the toll plaza in Gray, which also saw a fare increase, had 1.2 percent more vehicles in the first four months of this year than the first four months of 2012.

Cloutier, the authority board member, said he thought ridership would have been down even more, given the rough winter. A snowstorm hit the area every weekend in February.

"It's actually good news, because we know those riders who boycotted usually come back," he said.

Hill said she hopes turnpike officials are right about the anticipated increase in traffic coming through York in the next several months. She is concerned, though, that some may see the $3 toll as too high and look for ways to avoid it. If that happens, Hill said, the logical alternative, Route 1, could become gridlocked during the summer tourist season.

Andrew Pal lives in Windham and works in South Portland. The turnpike is by far the fastest route for his short commute. He said as long as he meets his 40-trip-per-month minimum and gets the discount, he's not unhappy about the fare increase.

"I think I'm paying a little more, but it's a manageable amount," he said.

Pal said he's still a little miffed that turnpike officials were not upfront about doing away with the commuter plan. But he doesn't think the changes will affect traffic on the turnpike in the long term.

"I guess you can boycott. I hear people say, 'I'm just going to find another route,' " he said. "But you are really shooting yourself in the foot because it will probably cost more in gas and time to avoid the turnpike."

Some of the outrage about the fare increases may be attributable to public opinion about the actions of its former director, Paul Violette, who was forced to step down in March 2011.

Violette, who led the authority for 23 years, was investigated for theft -- mainly in the form of gift cards -- from the authority. He pleaded guilty in February 2012 and was sentenced to serve 3½ years in prison. Violette also agreed to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars to the authority. Since Mills has taken over as director, he has steered the agency back to financial solvency by trimming the budget by 14 percent over the last two years and eliminating dozens of staff positions.

But the streamlining still wasn't enough to avoid a toll increase.

If there is a silver lining, Mills said, the latest toll increase should be the last for some time. He said that beginning in 2018, the turnpike's debt payments will have leveled off and will start to come down.

But there are still unknown factors. In a decade or so, another stretch of the turnpike, between Saco and Scarborough, might need to be widened.

There also is occasional talk about creating additional spurs to connect growing communities to the turnpike. In recent years, there have been discussions about adding a spur from Gorham to Portland and another from Sanford to Biddeford.

Those would both be costly, but they also would allow the turnpike to add another toll plaza to pay for those costs. 

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

 

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